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Back-to-School Readiness: Education is year-round—Not simply nine months By Cassiette West-Williams

When I asked my neighbor what summer program her granddaughter was enrolled in, she looked at me puzzled. Her body language said, “Girl, are you crazy?”

“This is the summer. She’s having fun,” my neighbor said.

“Well what happens when she returns to school this fall?” I questioned. “How old is she?”

“She just comes with me while I’m in these streets. Her mother gave her some workbooks to flip through,” my neighbor says. Dianna is eight years-old and will enter third grade. And no, they do not read together in the evening or any night.

Silence. Cars honk and friends speak, as we stand awkwardly in the driveway.

I offer a few “free” school camps and programs, but my neighbor is not interested in enrolling the child in anything. Period. I am not trying to argue or cause a commotion. Maybe I have overstepped my boundary, so I better cut this conversation short.

“Good luck with that,” I say and smile, as her granddaughter climbs in the back seat of her van and plays with her own phone. Her grandmother nods her head and pulls off.

Yes, the summer season is upon us and when August rolls around, folks are focused on many of the wrong priorities. New clothes, new supplies, new shoes and many families are anticipating a new start with bad habits and baggage.

There is no reason for a child to return to school behind a grade level or having forgotten all they have learned during the academic year. A child’s parent is their first teacher. One does not have to have a Ph.D., E.D., MD or JD to teach oral reading. The regular practice of reading at least five days a week, 60 minutes a day builds skills and enforces positive modeling of literacy in the home. One does not need a daily newspaper subscription or magazines coming to the home, when these items are free at the local public library. These periodicals are also on-line and at garage sells.

I remember when my fellow educators threw away their yearly supply of Scholastic magazines, at the close of the school year. I was not too proud to get in that garbage can and remove ALL the magazines they had thrown away. I backed my truck up to the school, popped the trunk, and had enough FREE magazines for my FREE reading program at the Champaign Public Library for three years! There are some eccentric educators still around and providing books and resources to families. We want a literate child in the classroom vs. someone who has played and shopped for two months.

If parents are focused on retention, a child’s mind can soar and there are no limits. Yes, as a people, we can advance if we (collectively—the home, the school, the church and the city) discipline ourselves and focus on basic reading and comprehension skills.

Some teachers send home work packets and reading suggestions (usually two to three novels) over the nine-week break. Private universities, like Bradley, offer short themed programs for toddlers and pre-K children. Public libraries sponsor summer reading programs and contests for all children. Programs like Upward Bound, Gear-Up and Summer Advantage are academic focused activities, geared to prepare junior high and high school students for the next grade level.

A local store, the Dollar Tree, sells $1-dollar books for kindergarten through third grades, titled “Common Core State Standards workbooks,” which are only 32 pages, but are packed with state required information.

My grandson’s former pre-school tried to charge regular prices for his books. They did not know that those books would be searched on and Amazon, for $3 dollars to 60 cents a book. It was the Big Skills Little Hands Series, with titles such as “I Can Cut”, “I Can Fold,” “I Can Paste,” and “I Can Color” for toddlers. Target has an entire series of $1 workbooks, titled “Reading Readiness workbooks with stickers”, which is very similar for the morning work routine, that primary school children have daily in their classrooms.

From the book “Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading”, there are 50 books listed for 4th through10th grade readers, that are taught in American schools (public, charter, private and religious). There are seven authors of color among the 50 titles, and most of these books are on CD and movies have been made for half of these books.

While I realize that my neighbor could have said, “Mind your own business,” she was respectful to me. And I questioned myself, because as a “community” member, is it my right to ask how she is continuing her grandchild’s education during the summer? And as a teacher, I will not receive an extra nine weeks of instructional time to close the gap in her learning.

The child is physically pretty, dressed well and not lacking for material things. Yet, her mind is not being fed. There are no dance, music, drama, 4-H Club, YMCA or YWCA, sports programs (i.e tennis, baseball), museum or art outings, lessons or recitals for this summer. She looks good and speaks sweetly. She would not be my ideal candidate for a gifted program this fall for obvious reasons.

Some years, these are the same parents and grandparents, who act like the classroom teacher is supposed to hold all the answers and perform miracles for their child during our nine months together. The reality is that as teachers, we must have something to work with from the child’s home environment. If the child returns to school, having been engaged in playing all summer long, they have lost two to six months of learning.

They are starting behind their peers and they are spending the year trying to play catch-up, blaming the school staff for their children failing. Perhaps you will not be as bold as I was, to poise the question to a neighbor, relative or friend, about their child’s education, but know that we all have a hand in how our future leaders are being developed.

Finally, why does this matter in the long run? When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, I was assigned 15 freshmen of color. About a third dropped out of college, after realizing how far behind they were, compared to their white colleagues. They were embarrassed to attend Parkland College, to take remedial classes to catch-up in their studies. Much of this chaos could have been avoided if they had developed into life-long readers. About another third of the young people graduated in seven years instead of four. They looked like stars in their home schools, because they had good behavior and could read a book or two. However, they lacked in depth reading and writing skills, critical thinking ability and lacked exposure to compete on a higher level. Most people watch BET for entertainment; the sitcoms and music videos should not be quoted in a research paper! It was sad to see the young people leave campus, but preparation for college starts in pre-school with basic, daily reading skills.

Cassiette West-Williams is a 25 year Golden Apple Winning Educator.